How an Early Role in a French Film Shaped Idris Elba’s Career

Idris Elba has worn a lot of hats: actor, DJ, director — but it was the time he spent working a series of dull jobs that solidified his desire to pursue a career in the arts. Appearing in a string of roles on British television, he first saw his name appear in Variety on May 10, 1999, in a review of the French film “Belle maman,” starring Catherine Deneuve. The film expanded his acting chops, leading three years later to what he calls his most pivotal portrayal — as Stringer Bell in HBO’s “The Wire.” Since then, Elba has starred in some of Hollywood’s biggest franchises, directed the feature film “Yardie” and co-created and starred in the Netflix comedy series “Turn Up Charlie.” He plays the villain in this summer’s “Fast & Furious” sequel “Hobbs and Shaw,” and continues for a fifth season in his Golden Globe-winning role as the titular character in the BBC’s “Luther.”

When did you catch the creative bug?

Probably when I was 14 in my boys’ school. I remember that as being the first time I was aware that I was creative. My drama teacher, Miss McPhee, encouraged me to keep going. She told me that I seemed quite natural at acting and singing and directing, and she made me want to do those more and more. I would DJ at early ages. I got my creative bones in school.

Which did you fall in love with first, music or acting?

Music was my first love. It was the first thing that really exposed me to the arts. Now I enjoy calling myself a creative. I don’t categorize things in the same way as I used to. I find myself more accepting that creativity is part of my expression, my language, who I am.

You worked at a series of jobs before your first break. Did any shape the man or actor you are today?

I really was just an odd-job man. Creativity was escaping from all that. I used to work at a hospital. They had their own radio station, and I got a job there interning. I loved it. I got my first job when I left school, working with my dad at Ford Motor Co. I remember doing that full time and working day shifts and night shifts. I remember thinking, “Wow, this could be my life.” It propelled me to be creative even more because it was so not creative. I definitely had to be an actor.

What did you learn while acting alongside Catherine Deneuve in “Belle maman”?

When I first got the job, I didn’t really know who Catherine Deneuve was. Then I learned on the job and realized how much of an icon she was. I got to work with her closely. I got to learn from her a little bit what it’s like to be a big lead actor and be respected. She was so nice and so humble. It definitely broadened my horizons. Making a foreign-language film: If I could do that, I could do anything, because I didn’t speak French. It was like a steppingstone to crafting what my career is, which isn’t one specific lane. I think that playing that character back then was an eye-opener for me. The TV stuff I did [prior to “Belle maman”] was challenging, but [“Belle maman”] was the biggest challenge.

You’re now directing young actors. What advice do you give to them?

[Acting] looks glamorous from the outside, but the reality is it’s really hard. It’s very taxing. Sure, be prepared to enjoy yourself; it’s the best seat in the house as far as entertainment is concerned: You get to pretend to be someone else and get to be adored for it. That can be very fulfilling, so enjoy that. But the ultimate thing is, work hard, be nice. It’s a small industry. People tend to work with each other more than once. So better to have a reputation for showing up on time and being nice than not. 

More Vintage

  • Amy Sherman-Palladino - Outstanding Writing for

    'Mrs. Maisel' Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino Honed Her Writing Skills on 'Roseanne'

    Last year Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” made Emmy history with wins for both comedy writing and directing, becoming the first woman to achieve that double. On July 16, her show, a ’50s period piece starring Rachel Brosnahan as an up-and-coming comedian in New York, was nominated for 20 Emmys, including outstanding [...]

  • Moon Landing

    Looking Back on the Moon Landing and the Giant Leap for TV Networks

    On July 16, 1969, Variety ran a package of stories under the headline “Greatest Show Off Earth,” detailing the three TV networks’ fever over the July 19 moon landing. CBS exec producer Robert Wussler predicted “the world’s greatest single broadcast.” Variety called it a “31-hour TV super-special,” running all day Sunday through midday Monday. The [...]

  • Esther Eng Lesbian Filmmaker

    Pioneering Filmmaker Esther Eng Made Movies in the '30s and '40s on Her Own Terms

    Esther Eng broke all the rules. In the 1930s and ’40s, it was remarkable for a Cantonese American woman to be a producer and director. Even more impressive: She was always upfront about being a lesbian. In 1941, a Variety reviewer praised “Golden Gate Girl” and added that a great marketing hook could be “the [...]

  • Luciano Pavarotti

    Songwriter Carole Bayer Sager Reflects on Her First Hit, 'A Groovy Kind of Love'

    In the summer of 1966, songwriter Johnny Mercer had his final Top 40 American hit with Frank Sinatra’s version of his song “Summer Wind.” That same summer, young songwriter Carole Bayer had her first chart hit with the English rock band the Mindbenders’ version of “A Groovy Kind of Love,” a song she co-wrote with [...]

  • Lorraine Toussaint First Time in Variety

    'Village' Star Lorraine Toussaint Played Lady Macbeth Right After Graduation

    Directly after graduating from Juilliard in 1982, Lorraine Toussaint began rehearsals for her first paid acting gig, as Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare & Company’s production of “Macbeth.” After eight years of classical theater training, the Trinidad-born, New York-raised performer found herself among seasoned professionals like Kristin Linklater and Tim Saukiavicus, who mentored her as she [...]

  • Sergio Gonzalez Musso and Frank

    Longtime Musso & Frank Waiter Sergio Gonzalez Dies at 66

    Sergio Gonzalez, a beloved waiter at Hollywood’s Musso & Frank Grill for 47 years, died Tuesday of a heart attack in Sylmar, Calif. He was 66. Related TV Shows to Watch the Week of July 22, 2019: 'Orange Is the New Black' Final Season Janet Mock on Netflix Deal: 'I Never Thought That I Would [...]

  • Idris Elba First Time in Variety

    How an Early Role in a French Film Shaped Idris Elba's Career

    Idris Elba has worn a lot of hats: actor, DJ, director — but it was the time he spent working a series of dull jobs that solidified his desire to pursue a career in the arts. Appearing in a string of roles on British television, he first saw his name appear in Variety on May [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content